The fires are natural for the landscape!

Fire in Paradise – An American Tragedy
LANDSCAPE ECOLOGY / : Who is responsible for the fires? With this year's forest fire season in California and Oregon, are we witnessing a new kind of "cultural disaster"?


The Los Angeles area, September 2020: Mornings with the house full of smoke sticking in the eyes and burning in the throat. Days with a red sun bathing the garden in a theatrical orange light while the ashes fall from the sky like gray snow. Evenings where the smoke clears enough that we can see the flames licking up the hills above the house.

After three days of this, we decided to leave: Pasadena, where we live, is anyway on the evacuation list for the Bobcat fire that is raging these days. We are betting that an eight-lane motorway will be enough to keep the house safe and set course for the interior, towards the desert where the sky is blue. At the motel I try to digest the situation. And not least understand the debate about causes and guilt, while I read about Trump who predictably blames poor forest management in California, while Governor Gavin Newsom and presidential candidate Joe Biden insist that this is primarily the cause of climate change.

I grab the book Fire in Paradise – An American Tragedy, written by journalists, Alistair Gee and Dani Anguiano from The Guardian. They followed the aftermath of the Camp Fire fire last year, which swept over 11000 homes in the small town of Paradise. The authors do not resist the temptation to associate around the city name. California is full of such place names, and the state of California is for many a paradise, much because of nature: a third of all California homes border wildlife, as our own neighborhood in Pasadena can be said to do. Five minutes away, above the highway, bears are constantly pulling down the streets and taking their cubs to swim in people's swimming pools. The suburbs with their lush gardens, peacocks and all sorts of exotic trees glide into nature and protected green areas. California is made into a wild but protected garden. This is also part of the problem.

Could the landscapes have been overprotected?

Trump's arguments about forestry have not been taken out of thin air. Every year, forest fires are accompanied by debates in which avid provocateurs repeat the main points of more well-informed experts: brannone is actually natural for the landscape! The argument is further that forests and national parks have been overprotected, so that dense forests, dry trees and twigs have built up a dangerous amount of fuel. In this sense, the fires are both natural and unnatural. Once they arrive, they become too big, too uncontrolled: the savagery of the oppressed returns with double strength, as Paul Wapner has recently argued in his book Is Wildness Over? (Police, 2020)

Gee and Anguiano go deeper into the argument, drawing in several historical conditions for the landscapes to have been overprotected: After the great fire in 1910, in which 78 firefighters lost their lives, a zero-tolerance policy was introduced. Any forest fire or grass fire should be extinguished, and that by ten o'clock the next morning! But there is something today's firefighters, with everything they have of helicopters and equipment can only dream of. The Camp Fire broke out for 22 days. The Bobcat fire that I myself have fled from is in its second week, and 880 firefighters working hard. The Lightning Complex fire in northern California has been burning for almost a month.

Many trees and plants are completely dependent on fires to thrive and reproduce.

The confusion about how much forests and scrub should be protected also lies in a lack of understanding of the landscape's own ecology. Many trees and plants are completely dependent on fires to thrive and reproduce – even some of the largest trees, such as redwoods and the giant sequoias, thrive on fires. These remove competing undergrowth, while being protected by their height and thick bark.

The amazing thing is that California's indigenous people – tribal people who are almost extinct today – respected this dynamic and even started fires to help the landscape. In pre-Columbian times, according to research, burned as much as 1.8 million hectares.

Although this knowledge has become widely known, it takes time to get to know a landscape, and ecologists have joked that the best way to understand a landscape is to settle there – and live there for a thousand years. It is striking that some of the areas that burn most intensely today are colonized countries such as Australia, Brazil and the United States, where the handed down local natural knowledge has been lost. In a highly populated California, and in a world that is increasingly densely populated, there is little room to let nature take its course and let the fires rage freely.

Triggering causes

A friend lives in Idyllwild, south of Los Angeles. He says that last year's big fire was started by a pyromaniac who had just been released from prison, and who was celebrating by shooting fireworks out of the car window. No one knows how the threatening fire over Pasadena started. Toxic conspiracy theories abound that political extremists were behind the fires in Northern California. Dramatic tragedies that affect many, lead to an often desperate hunt for the causes – declared with perpetrators.

A large part of Gee and Anguiano's book is devoted to the lawsuit against the power company PG&E which due to poor maintenance of power lines, caused 17 major fires in 2017 alone. The prosecution put it this way: they claim that they put safety first, but why do they not remove dangerous treetops near the power grid, instead of paying out about a hundred billion dollars annually to the shareholders? With a system that by law protects shareholders' right to maximum profit, it becomes all too common for maintenance to be downgraded until it is too late. Lawsuits are an effective way to redress in the United States. The energy company declared itself bankrupt in 2019, but still had to pay huge sums for the reconstruction of Paradise. It was a poor consolation for those who lost everything.

Denial and heroic defense

Whatever the triggering causes, the deeper conditions lie in the climate. The question is whether we can fight the fires in the time of climate change. Some have dubbed this the "Pyrocene" – the age of fires. The unusual drought in January this year killed many trees, which in turn created perfect conditions for fires – where the forests thus release more carbon than they absorb. Climate changeone is further strengthened, something both presidential candidate Biden and Governor Gavin Newsom emphasizes.

The fire brigade is honored

But Trump will not believe in threats he cannot overcome. About the pandemic, he says: "Just wait – one day soon the virus will suddenly disappear by itself." After accusing local authorities of poor forest management, he was fortunate enough to reassure us also about global warming: "Just wait, one day it will suddenly start to get colder." Hardly.

Along the roads in fire-stricken areas, such as at Big Sur along the Pacific Highway 1, one can see large signs and posters honoring the fire crews – many of them specially trained convicts, who for minimal payment put their lives at risk in the sea of ​​flames. The unison tribute to the California fire brigade shows that there is room for heroism even in a fight that only limits the damage temporarily.

The most crucial battle of the climate war right now is the election campaign in the United States. Biden has recently borrowed his opponents' rhetorical style: American neighborhoods are not safe under one climate pyromaniac like Trump. A sharp wording he can well afford for me.

also read: Is Wilness Over?

Subscription NOK 195 quarter